Irish boy cries; Turkish man orders buttermilk

At 5 o’clock this morning, I found myself in a queue to get through security at Dublin airport. It was moving sluggishly, like a lazy snake. Every time it took a bend, I caught sight of a young man a few meters in front. He was nineteen or twenty and slightly lanky. He had a gentle face and blonde hair, which flopped a little to the side. He was crying.

At every bend his face grew sadder and when I saw him take out a crumpled tissue from the pocket of his jeans, I discovered tears in my eyes too. I wanted to reach over the barrier, touch his wrist and say “Skype is great, you know” but I couldn’t because the night before, when LSB had left me at my garden gate, I ran away up the stairs and to my toilet so nobody would see me crying.

I lost him after he went through security but he had a face and expression which personified every single Irish short story about grief and emigration I have read.

There were quite a few empty seats on my flight. I was on the aisle, with a space between me and a neat-looking man at the window programming things on his ipad. When the cabin lights were dimmed for take-off, I tried to turn my overhead reading light on but it was defective. The man stretched across and turned on the middle reading light for me. I thanked him and he smiled.

I’ve only been here a few hours but moving from the east of Berlin to the west is like ageing thirty-five years in a day. Gone are the punk bars and graffiti. Gone are the anarchist posters stuck to trees. It’s quieter, more leafy.

I was thinking this anyway, on my way from the S Bahn stop, on the lookout for a snack. I found a kebab joint and ordered a falafel sandwich. I sat down on a steel table outside, with my luggage wrapped around my feet.

The two men at the next table stared at me.

“Where were you on holiday?” the older one with a moustache asked.

I explained that I hadn’t been on holiday but was coming for work.

“There’s no work here,” he said.

“What are you drinking?”

“Nothing, thanks.”

“Cola?”

“No thanks.”

He ordered me Turkish butter milk. It came in a yoghurt container and was full of salt and bubbles.

Image source: sweettoothcraving.blogspot.com

“Ever had this?”

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“Ireland.”

“How much is a kebab in Ireland?”

“More expensive.”

“How much?”

“€4.50.”

“Is it.”

“Yes.”

“We’re not German either. I’m Turkish and he’s Greek. We’ve been here thirty years. It’s not easy coming here new.”

They told me I would need a work visa if I didn’t want to work “Schwarz.” (The German language rather offensively refers to “schwarz” or “black” as the colour of transgression.)

I told them Ireland was in the EU.

“How much rent you paying?”

I told them.

“I could get you a flat to yourself for less.”

I gratefully declined.

“You living around here? That street there?”

I was arrested by his guess and didn’t deny it.

When he guessed the number I became frightened.

I told him I didn’t know yet.

“That street’s full of alcoholics. You could have a place to yourself for less. Who you staying with?”

I texted LSB and asked him to call me.

We spoke in Irish. I waited and waited. The Turkish man eventually got bored and left. The Greek stayed behind. I paid €2.50 for my falafel sandwich. The Turkish butter milk was on the house.

What septic tanks and education have in common

I’ve spent three-quarters of my life being educated and the last two years educating others.

Since I began school at the age of four, I’ve associated education with evaluation.

First it was stickers and stars and rubber stamps. These evolved into report cards with little boxes beside the words: poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Next came the letters of the alphabet: A, B and C. Then fractions and percentages arrived and after that, points. At university, marks were converted into classes and you could be first, second or third.

Compulsory education – like the septic tank- originated in the nineteenth century. While both aged tolerably well, of late they have begun to fail us.

image source: insectapedia.com


After all, as Ken Robinson, an educational theorist points out, the current system of education was conceived in the intellectual era of the enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution.

Like the septic tank, it has failed to keep up with the times, often producing impenetrable sludge before practical distillation.

(If you need proof, try understanding what on earth academics writing in humanities journals are trying to say).

It’s not that our education is of poor quality. It’s not that we have bad teachers, or unmotivated students. They never help but they’re neither unique to this period nor the cause of the problem.

The real issue is that we haven’t decided whether education is a journey focussed on itself or on its destination.

Let me explain.

Up to recently, education was a means to an end. You walked out of school and into the workplace. If you went to university and got a first class degree, you got a first class job.

Now things have changed. We have too many people educated in areas with too few jobs.

The difficulty is that we still believe that the higher your educational level, the loftier your career expectations should be.

Of course it’s a prospect that many are failing to realise.

Now, if you get a first class degree, you take your place among all the others and compete for any old job.

It’s a case of social progress outrunning institutional reform.

You could see the situation as a social leveler. Now unemployment is for everybody, not just the least privileged.

Some students spend twenty years collecting stamps and stars and letters and numbers.

And then they find that the numbers don’t add up to a job.

Their experience calls into question the very purpose of evaluation.

The transition from pupil to teacher has taught me that evaluating students is rather arbitrary. It doesn’t measure very much at all.

But we’re hooked on comparison. We get frustrated if our own evaluation can’t be backed up by a standard measurement. If we think we’re better than the person next to us, we want it neatly before us in percentage form.

I guarantee that in a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams.

Science backs it up. Research has shown that the pleasure circuits are activated in advance of finding out a result.

We thrive in conditions of uncertainty.

Waiting for a test result is like waiting to see if you have won in Poker. Ultimately neither tells you how well you have played or how much you have learnt, but rather how well you have performed relative to others.

It’s time we took a step back though.

The right to education is one of the great privileges of our age. While its original and most important purpose-to lay the foundations for economic subsistence- has been eroded by the unprecedented pace of progressive reform relative to growth in employment opportunities-we must take time to remember what has been so long neglected: the timeless, immeasurable pleasure of learning for its own sake.

Could it be that indulging ourselves in constant measurement against others is doing us more harm than good?

Andrew Bird, an American folk singer condenses the possibility beautifully in the song “Measuring Cups” which opens:

Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game. Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain. We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.

This generation, more intensely than any other before it, has experienced education as a closed system of incessant measurement.

For many that measurement has not amounted to more than restlessness and disillusion.

Learning for its own sake has been forgotten amidst the obsession with making ‘it’ which means ‘making money’.

If teaching has taught me one thing, it’s that the responsibility to evaluate is nothing compared with the possibility to inspire. My job is to encourage before it is to instruct.

Pupils are not watering cans: we can’t fill them up without their consent. They must want to learn, not in order to get a good job or to become rich or to sound clever, but because, as Merlin in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King reminds us, “it is the only thing that never fails”.

I have the following words pinned to my bedroom wall:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then, to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the Mind can never exhaust never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you”.

Equipped with this original joy of learning, and a quieter, more humble confidence, our young people may be more inspired to carve an independent niche on the side-lines rather than enter the desperate rat-race of out-performance.

Let’s make our recovery less sludgy than a septic tank. In remembering why education matters for its own sake, we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Leprechauns trade in gold as downturn hits the streets

On North Great George’s Street this morning I saw a woman pushing a buggy with her belly while using her hands to scrape a scratch card with a coin. I imagined the baby going flying as she raised her arms in jubilation but alas, it didn’t happen. This morning wasn’t her lucky day.

I enjoyed the image though, particularly as it happened right outside the tacky off-license at the corner where a few days ago I saw the homeless man who sits on O’Connell Bridge (with his rabbit and dog) buy booze. He stuffed his rabbit into his shopping trolley and held the dog under his arm while he rummaged for coins to buy his cans. He could have gone to Centra but he was looking for good value. Aren’t we all?

If these moments tell us anything about the Irish, it’s that we’re damn good at recessions. If it’s a quirky economic downturn you’re after, look no further than Dublin city centre.

Without a doubt the creature that has benefitted most from the downturn is the Leprechaun. This being, formerly associated with ancient folklore and American gullibility, (“Do you really have leprechauns in I-Ur lend?“) has experienced an unprecedented comeback in times of austerity. On Grafton Street you can find a man of about two and a half-foot who has painted his face orange, attached a ginger beard to his chin and placed a pot at his feet. He looks a little like an Oompa Lumpa from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film. If you felt sorry for him I think the joke would be on you; he’s probably making a killing. Size matters.

Size matters so much among opportunistic leprechauns that the one that hovers around the Molly Malone statue is enormous. His artificial head is about six times as big as his own. He waves his gigantic leprechaun arms awkwardly at passers-by and of late he has decorated his crock of gold with silver tinsel. The other day I saw him leaning against a lamppost on the phone, with his huge fake head under his arm. He didn’t look Irish, which made it all the more wonderful. He’s probably an economic downturn migrant from the BRIC area who’s heard that no one throws a recession session quite like the Irish.

It’s not all fun and games though. There are feuds on the streets; warring factions have developed. Resentment is building.

You can see why.

Way before economic opportunism was in fashion, an old man from Cavan had an idea. He decided to put on a tweed cap and a patchwork waistcoat and sit on Molly Malone banging on a badhrán. The tourists loved it. He’d motion to them to come sit beside him and encouraged them to take photographs. He even bought spare tweed caps for them to pose with in the pictures. Once, when I was in my first year of university, I pretended to be a German tourist just to get a picture with him. If somebody else tried to sit down on the statue beside him, he’d snarl at them and tell them to clear off. He had the kind of audacity I can only dream of.

The good old days


It may be easy to mark your territory when the property market’s booming but things have changed. A few weeks ago, I saw my tweed-capped friend outside River Island, patting his badhrán with a sour face. Two American tourists stopped to have a look at him and quick as lightning he beamed. After both of them had had a go of the badhrán and dropped a few euro into his cap, he pulled them closer to him. Pointing at the giant leprechaun parading around Molly Malone, he whispered conspiratorially, “See that leprechaun? Don’t bother with him; He’s a fake”.

Budgets aside, recessions in Ireland are pure Gold.

Also, if you find this post facetious, you can read a serious piece about my opinion of the Irish here.

Ikea and Ireland: a practical love affair

On its way to the blue and yellow superstore in Ballymun, the 13A (officially known as the “Ikea Bus”) passes three horses grazing lazily on a patch of grassland. At the entrance, a Swedish flag flutters in the breeze alongside the tricolour and opportunistic taxi drivers line up to ferry the furniture of impulsive bus passengers.

Inside, The Stereophonics’ Have a nice day provides a soft soundtrack to three Corkonian ladies who are perusing a kitchen/living room display unit. One of them is pointing at a collection of cream-coloured cookie jars: “they’re gorgeous, aren’t they?” she asks her companions, but gets no response. One of them is occupied with opening and closing the door of a bookcase to reveal again and again the flatscreen TV it conceals. “Look how it slides” she gasps in the direction of the third, who is regarding a navy shelving unit with a little suspicion; “I wouldn’t be mad about the colour”, she says, adding “it must be the fashion now”.

Around the corner, in the bathroom display area, a father has one hand curled around the bar of his shopping trolley and the other clasped to a lead attached to his toddler. Inside his trolley is a tiny sleeping baby lying flat on its back beside a large plastic toolbox. A few metres away a couple kissing by the fabric stand is separated by a middle-aged man in glasses, who strokes a piece of material and casts a thoughtful glance in the direction of the sofas in front of him.

It’s 3 pm on a Monday in June and Ikea is awash with customers. A cursory glance about the car park, which is decorated with pretty picnic table displays, reveals that shoppers have come from far and wide. At least one third have travelled from outside of Dublin. There are a particularly large number of registration plates from Cork, Kildare Longford, Meath, Kerry and Wexford and the accents inside the store represent this diversity. It’s far from just Irish accents that can be heard though. In the kitchen display area Polish children play with saucepans and mothers soothe their children with cooing foreign sounds.

How can it be that in Recession-depression Ireland, shoppers are coming in their droves to buy flat-pack furniture and frozen cinnamon buns? In the 12 months leading up to last August, Ikea Ballymun made a pre-tax profit of €11.4 million, making it one of the most profitable stores in Europe.

Ikea seems to be ergonomically designed to thrive in a recession. Its emphasis on accessibility and transparency as well as on low prices appeals to a public, which has lost faith in a politics dominated by wastage and concealment. In sum, Ikea defines “customer friendly”.

The entire store is constructed with the busy, multi-tasking customer in mind. Underneath the escalator at the entrance are a number of wheelchairs so that older and less mobile customers can navigate the store with ease. At every corner you can pick up a measuring tape, note-cards and pencils to keep track of your shopping. It would be easy to become frustrated trying to find your way through such an enormous store but measures have been taken for that eventuality too. You can find a map at every turn and each time you are about to enter a new section a sign helpfully vouches safe a missive along the lines of “By taking this shortcut you will miss workspaces, kitchens and dining.” (Heavens forbid.)

In Ikea, customer-friendly means “family-friendly”. On the ground floor, an enormous play area (“Smålan”) provides children with a huge quarter in which to expend their energy. It’s supervised and free. In the restaurant there are microwaves available for parents to heat up their babies’ bottles. Adjustable high chairs are available for toddlers of all sizes and there’s even a quiet nursing area for mothers who wish to breastfeed their babies in private. There’s a fold-out changing table in the downstairs toilet too.

There’s a great emphasis on communicating the manufacturing process to the consumer. In the living room display area for example, there is a large glass box housing an armchair. Attached to it are two mechanical levers which press again and again into the seat and back of the chair. Though it looks like some bizarre modern art fixture, the sign above it explains that this chair, like all sold in Ikea is undergoing quality testing: “Only if it withstands the pressure and still functions as well as before is it approved”.

As if furniture weren’t enough, the food is customer-friendly too. The “meatballs for all” mantra is sincere. You get a plate of 10 for €3.95 and for 50 cent you get a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun. The soup of the day is less than two euro and you can be full up for less than a fiver. From the window of the restaurant, you can see what remains of the Ballymun tower blocks and on closer inspection, a cluster of mobile homes and caravans amidst some unwanted furniture strewn in a rubbish heap.

As they make their way to the tills, the Corkonian ladies stop to admire the pink and white orchidaceae and agree that with quality stalks like those they’re “dirt cheap”. They pick up a pot each and proceed to the checkout.

Want to succeed in journalism? Photograph yourself with a tree

“Me a financial journalist?”, an Austrian lady with lively eyes exclaimed, tearing into her steak. “I thought; never!”

She was over here two years ago to report on the economic crisis and had stopped by at my house for dinner. It was the first time my parents and I had met her but she had come highly recommended by her Viennese aunt, a friend of my father’s. I was in my third year of college and still under the impression that the world was my oyster.

“How has the recession had an impact on you?” she asked between bites.
I thought. “Wealthy parents no longer want me to teach their children Irish”, I mused “and as a result I’m more conscious of the price of coffee. Coffee is my main source of expenditure”. She scribbled this down in her notebook.

I was about to explain to her that Insomnia’s €3 coffee and mufffin deal (do you remember?) was topping my list of recession busters but that were the food not so disgusting, the “Weekly Madness” deal in Londis would have come out tops, when she asked “What would you like to be?”

“I would like to write feature articles for newspapers” I said.

She poured herself some juice and sat back. “You need to be open”, she said, “and you need to stand out. I never saw myself writing about economics.. I mean, me and finance come on”..

“You need to send good photographs to editors”, she continued. “Not boring ones. Ideally you should be out in nature. The photograph I used to get this job was of me with a tree. It’s important that you be different from the crowd”.

In the days, weeks and months that followed that conversation, I considered setting the self-timer of my camera and wrapping myself originally around one of the sycamore trees in my garden, but weather and the proximity of my neighbour’s back window to my creative space did not permit.

I did however take on board her advice, and the photograph that I use in the “Who Am I” section of this blog features me with a Slovenian tree which I accosted on the shores of Lake Bled during an interrail adventure with my LSB two summers ago. Though I have been a hard-working teacher for a week now, I’m keeping the old literary passion alive and my big toe in the door by accepting the position of editor of a new literary website: www.writing.ie, which launched last night after months of hard work by a small group of driven and creative people from whom I am learning to multitask. For the “about us” section of the site, I have chosen to feature a photograph of myself beside a large sunflower, as my sycamore tree wouldn’t fit on the photograph. Who would have thought that a financial journalist could inspire such a circuitous plug. I guess her editor would agree with me that she is one hundred percent natural…

“Face of Ireland” Contest makes Farce of Ireland

Today Waterstone’s Bookshop announced the closure of its two Dublin branches and the Sunday Tribune newspaper went into receivership. I spent the day in my bear onesie; having spent an unfortunate night vomiting. The news about the Waterstone’s closure reached me via text message from my dismayed, book-selling LSB who had just finished work. Nursing a saline medicinal solution and rather cosy in bed, at the moment my phone beeped, I had just finished reading Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl; a story of cultural and ideological tragedy that depicts the epic and transformative power of money.

With these thoughts at the back of my mind, I got around to researching the “Face of Ireland” beauty competition, which a friend of mine told me that she had entered last week. The contest, which I had not heard of before is now in its fourth year and promises the successful candidate “a year of glitz and glamour”.

But both come at a price. If I have understood the terms and conditions of this dubious divafest correctly, I calculate that all candidates that reach the grand finalé will have forked out €750 for the privilege. The website stipulates that: All candidates who are selected for interview will have to pay a small fee for the upkeep of the competition. I know from my friend that this “small fee” happens to be €150, a sum with which you could procure at least ten great works of literature from Waterstone’s bookshop. In an uncanny commercial coincidence it just happened that every girl selected for interview also got through to the next round. My friend opted out at this point and in an indignant text message which I sent her from Penneys in O’Connell Street I ensured her that she had done the right thing.

Should she have progressed further through the competition, she would have been required, in accordance with the terms and conditions, to sell at least 10 Tickets at a costing of €60 each for the semifinal show. This year’s Face of Ireland, Louise from Donegal blogged happily of the night of the grand finalé that Between cat walking, interesting questions and a few unexpected party pieces an entertaining night seemed to be over in a blink! I know it’s a cliché but to have made it that far, every single one of us was a winner!.

I suppose with a loose interpretation of winner, any achievement is possible. In a society which has lost its money, its bookshops and its most educated people the success of this kind of vacuous endeavour makes a farce of us all. I have a lovely memory of sitting upstairs in the coffee shop of Waterstone’s on a spring afternoon during my first year of university. Our tutor had taken us there to discuss Structuralism over a cup of hot chocolate. Soon enough the Deconstruction will begin at that site and the future Faces of Ireland and their fans will stand proud, pouting over it all.

Hair today, where tomorrow?

Echart Tolle is all about living in the present and listening to the senses. I hear him speaking on the John Murray show before rushing out (naturally..) to get my hair cut. Although I am power-walking with intent, I pretend that I am hanging out sensualy without purpose. I take note of the dark and crunchy leaves on Mountpleasant Avenue and mould the relative smoothness of its concrete path into an aesthetic pleasure. Before I can wait for the little green man, the traffic at Portobello has glided to a sublime appreciation of life’s industrial hum.

I arrive in Stephen’s Green breathless but full of life. Unfortunately I have no cash, so after a mindful trip to the ATM machine I arrive a respectable seven minutes late for my appointment. As usual, I am getting my hair cut by trainees. You can tell that they are trainees because they listen carefully to what you tell them you want done and before they begin, they ask you if your scalp ever gets itchy, because they have been told to ask this question. As I am getting a bib wrapped around me like a baby, I watch the group of ten girls who are taking a class in the corner of the salon. They are creating elaborate ballroom styles on uniformly attractive mannequin heads. Agreeing with Michelle, my stylist that I am a ‘medium-dark blend’ of a person with a penchant for autumn colours, I begin to flick through Marie Claire and alight at the few pages which boast sustained passages of prose. I stumble across three articles on the same theme: living in the moment. It seems to be the mantra of  my day. One is written by a woman who had a lesbian relationship with her best friend after (and later while) being in a relationship with the father of her child. The next is a story of contented single life by a woman in her late 30s, who now befriends rather than resents her many exes. The last tells of the regrets of an Oxford graduate for feeling intimidated by her toff-ee friends for three years instead of quitting after one and joining Smash Hit magazine as had always been her dream.

I like self-help. I think the idea of ‘living in the moment’ is fascinating. The scientist in me wants to find out:can it be? Is Echart Tolle really motivated to have a chat with Dawkins, Gaybo and Murray by an appreciation of the quotidian or is he, like most of us, drawn to the notion of acclaim? It’s difficult to ‘live in the moment’ when you are a (nearly totally) unemployed graduate still living at home. After yet another job rejection yesterday morning, I think I may be ready to disregard the future though.  The past; dull and continuous might just have to come second to the present, which (while tense) is reassuringly habitual. I am not getting started on the conditional, but Echart Tolle would be proud.

Echart Tolle and purple flowers

Me shorn.. for the moment